Baseball Travel Guidelines: Make Sure I Have a Room

OK, now that you have your copy of the Baseball America Directory, (or maybe it’s on order), we can talk about the details of planning your family (or without) baseball vacation. Here are the threshed out details that we mentioned in our last post.

1)   Determine approximately when we want to go and how much time we can take.

2)   Decide where we want to go and consult Baseball America Directory for parks in the general geographic area we’ve targeted and dates they’re playing.

We need to discuss both one and two above together, because they are often interchangeable. Our trips usually start as a conversation between us about where we might want to go on our annual baseball trip, how much time we have for a trip, if there is someplace that we have to go to which we can attach a minor road trip, or some reason we can justify taking a special trip someplace, and whether there is someone we want to see (for example, some relative we can mooch off of).  We start our planning almost as soon as we get home from the current trip. We hash out some grandiose ideas and then continue tossing around ideas throughout the fall and winter—always thinking (wishing) we could do some fall and winter baseball. The conversation about where usually comes before when, because, being academics, we’re not always sure if one of us is teaching during the summer months, or if there are plans for family visits, or conferences to attend. So once our summer schedule is solid, then we can finalize our choice of where.

As mentioned above, we sometimes have the opportunity to connect our baseball trips to other trips, be it family- or business-related. Being academics, we attend a number of professional conferences. These conferences vary in location and time every year, some during the school year—October, March, April—or some in the summer. When we know that we will be attending one of these conferences, the first think we check is whether there is baseball close by. Even if it’s visiting a stadium during the off-season.

For instance, the first time we saw the Round Rock stadium, we were driving from Dallas (where we had flown in) to San Antonio for the Conference on College Composition and Communication. It was March, too early for the team to be playing yet. The front office—and most important—team store were open. We stopped…of course, we did. And we shopped. (Ginny wears her last-year’s-model-discounted-drastically Round Rock denim jacket everywhere). After hearing about our enthusiasm for minor league baseball, the people in the front office also graciously gave us a tour of the stadium that was being readied for opening day a few weeks away. Several years later we finally had the chance to actually see a game at this stadium.

3)   Lay out a tentative itinerary based on when teams are playing and a basic logical (or a close approximation to logical) geographic pattern so we aren’t backtracking too much.

The next step is to use the Baseball America Directory to find what teams play in that part of the country, and figure out who will be playing at their home field during the time frame that we will be traveling. Dan starts tracking down schedules in January on websites (getting the website addresses from the Directory). Schedules start coming out in mid-January for a number of the leagues; sometimes you can get tentative schedules for triple A affiliates at the end of the previous season. Check the league websites to see if the teams are still playing and if there are any new teams just starting up. Part of the reason we start this early is to make sure we can get tickets for the new teams, whose games are often all sold out. In the inaugural year for the Lansing Lugnuts, we could only get lawn seats (standing room) for a grassy knoll out at the end of the third base line in left field—and it was a “family-no-beer-drinking zone.”  Likewise, the first year of the Dayton Dragons we were out at the end of the left field, but at least we had seats and Dan could have a beer.

At this point, if you have your firm dates, and flying is required to your chosen region, you might want to book your flights. Considering the ever-changing costs of air travel, the sooner you have your tickets, the better. Of course, you may run into other problems later on, such as we had in the summer of 2011. We finalized our decision in March to make the trip to Texas and Oklahoma because we could get a flight to Dallas much cheaper than other places we wanted to go. However, by the time August rolled around, it turned out to be one of the hottest summers on record for both states. They had already both been ravaged with tornadoes, fires and floods. We had begun to believe that Armageddon had arrived for them. But it wasn’t too exceedingly bad, if you didn’t mind sitting perfectly still at the ball park and sweating through that new souvenir t-shirt you just bought. And it was still in the bag!

4)   Fill in with sites that we would like to see along the way, leaving enough lag time in between for serendipity—that is, those great sites found along the way.

Other sites will depend on your personal interests. Our trips tend to follow our primary interest of baseball and then our secondary interests of American history, women’s issues, writers, food and kitsch. Some examples of baseball related sites we’ve seen are Geneva, New York’s McDonough Park which now hosts a New York Collegiate League team, but was for a number of years home to the Geneva Reds, a New York-Penn Leagueteam whose roster once included Tony Perez and Pete Rose. Likewise, there is Robin Roberts Field in Springfield, Illinois, which was the site of games of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League’s Springfield Sallies.

But life is not all baseball, so we check out the many other sites/activities that an area may offer. Over the years we have been to places such as Graceland, a coon dog cemetery, the place where James Dean was killed, the movie site of Field of Dreams, the grave of Mark Twain, the place where President Grant died, numerous Civil War battlefields, Shaker villages, Dollywood, the grave of Dan’s great, great, great grandfather, and one of our personal favorites, taking the opportunity to renew our wedding vows with Elvis in a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

The AAA Guide to the states is the next most handy item to set up a trip. They give a good overview of some of the places you will be going and will list some of the sites of interest that you may not have known about. Some of the other references that we use include Road Food (interesting road side restaurants), a guide to historic baseball sites, several guidebooks on American kitsch and places of the weird. Besides these, we peruse the guides to Civil War sites, women’s history sites, political history sites, religious history sites, Revolutionary War/War of 1812 sites and then some of our favorite movie/TV sites. (For a list of these references, see the appendices.)

The danger here is in locking yourself too tightly to your itinerary. You want to make sure that you give your family enough options for sites to visit, but not be so rigid that you can’t just bag the original planned visits when you serendipitously stumble across something you all just have to see. Always leaving some time open for those surprises led us to one of our favorite finds: the monument to the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in Riverside, Iowa.

5)   Once the itinerary is somewhat definite, book flights, reserve a car, buy game tickets and book the motel rooms (or contact those family members off of whom we intend to mooch).

Second only to deciding how much time and where to go is finding those places to sleep. You notice we don’t say finding a place “to stay.” Usually, on these trips, with few exceptions—like the three-day Florida trip—we are always on the go: museums, historical sites, food. Even if a game gets rained out, we still ordinarily use the motel room only to sleep and store our stuff. Why always book the motel ahead of time? As we stated earlier, you don’t want to sleep in the car. We once spent over two hours after a night game driving around the back roads of Illinois searching for a motel. We were not happy campers (especially Ginny). Speaking of which, there are many campgrounds that the more adventurous may choose to use. We, on the other hand, believe that the definition of “roughing it” is when the motel TV doesn’t get HBO.

We normally book our flights fairly early on, at least as soon as we have some dates and know for sure that several of the teams will be playing at home. Then make sure that you line up those game tickets—as we said before, you don’t want to go all that way and get shut out. The car reservations are a little different. We’ve often reserved a car at about the same time as the flight, but then Ginny (who does the flight and car bookings) will revisit the rental car sights to check for cheaper deals. Only once have we used the “book a hotel + car for a great deal.” That was our trip to New York City and indeed it was a great deal! You can also check with your own travel clubs—AAA, etc.—or you can use your frequent flyer miles. Our flight to Texas was a “freebie” because of Ginny’s credit card miles. (All those Christmas presents and household appliances can sometimes pay off.)

Mooching, well…visiting family and friends is a great way to save money on these trips. Any time you can combine a family/friend function with a trip, it’s a good deal. Any time you can combine a family/friend function with a trip AND get a free room out of it, you’ve hit a homerun. That’s the case for most people. One problem we have, though, is that we don’t like staying at other people’s homes, not even a Bed and Breakfast. (Ginny loves staying at her parents’ house, but even after 37 years of marriage, it still makes Dan feel a bit uncomfortable.) It really is wonderful to see friends and relatives on our travels. We often just opt to sleep at the motel down the road. So you and your family need to make those decisions for yourselves.

6) Pack lightly, leaving room for all those souvenirs and baseball kitsch, and don’t forget the rain gear.

Since the airlines now like to nickel and dime us to death, charging for every little thing imaginable, it’s a good idea to pack light. Depending on what part of the country you’re going to, you might get away with nothing but shorts and t-shirts. For our trip to Texas and Oklahoma during a record heat wave, we took one nice set of clothes each (for Sunday church) and a few pairs of shorts and enough t-shirts to last half way through the trip. Then we did laundry in the motel (which can be problematic, depending on the reliability of the washers and driers). Before the trip, Ginny even bought a couple of very cheap shirts that could be thrown in the dryer and she wouldn’t care how they came out. As it was, we still had to pay $25 for each of the two bags we checked with the airlines. That was an extra $100 for the trip. You need to make sure you’re prepared for these possible “hidden” costs.

The main reason that we took two bags instead of one is because of the souvenirs. Of course, a trip is not an adventure without the collectibles (or crap—given the “eye of the beholder” and all that). There are the team programs, the giveaways at the gate, the lucky number drawings and game prizes…and that’s just the baseball game take-aways. Don’t forget all the sites you’ll be visiting and the souvenirs, t-shirts, hats, jewelry, books, brochures, CDs, DVDs, just to mention a few of the possible items that will find their way back to your car and into your luggage. We even like to do Christmas shopping while we’re on these trips. Dan has two young pre-school nieces for whom we often pick up shirts from unusual places. So far, they’ve received shirts from the National Bowling Museum, the National Tattoo Museum and the Jello Museum. Their father and grandfather always get quite a chuckle out of our choices. (What can we say—Dan’s family has an unusual sense of humor.) When the girls get a bit older, I’m sure they won’t appreciate being the recipients of such not-quite-understood humor as much as they do now.

And by all means, don’t forget the camera! We own an Olympus SLR that does a great job, but it is bigger and heavier than the compact models that also take lovely photos. Someone will have to carry the camera through the airports and schlep it onto the plane. Think about the extra weight when deciding on a choice through which to preserve those memories.

Finally, it’s a fact of nature that rain happens. Some years we’ve had no rain at all, and others so much rain we thought of going to Home Depot to buy ark materials (what is a “cubit” anyway?). Be prepared. Ginny always carries a white plastic poncho that she bought at the Akron Aeros team shop (guess what the weather was like) because it covers both her and her scorekeeping paraphernalia and does a rather good job of keeping out heavier rain. Dan tends to tough it out, or moves to a place where there’s shelter. If the rain lasts too long and is too hard, Ginny will join him. Yes, being rained on can be unpleasant, but it can also be entertaining watching the grounds crew, or the other fans and how they deal with it. A few times, we have been among a hand-full of people who stuck it out to see the game either finished, or finally called a rainout. Our secret is being prepared for the weather—and a whole lot of patience.

We love baseball and any reason, despite the weather, is always a good excuse to do a minor road trip. A little planning, a good relationship with your traveling companion and the philosophy “Some times you win, sometimes you lose, and some times you get rained out” helps you to enjoy the trip no matter what.

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